On Air
0:00
0:00
Open In Popup
MPR News

Welcome home Red Bulls -- for now

Share story

Chad Fleming, Brooke Mitchell
Spec. Chad Fleming and his wife Brooke Mitchell embrace as Fleming meets his 3-month-old daughter Jenna Fleming for the first time after his return to Stillwater on Sunday, January 31, 2010.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

On the phone from Camp Basra a week ago, Minnesota National Guard Sgt. Roger Boyd looked forward to reuniting with his family in Janesville, Minn., after a year in Iraq. 

"I really miss my wife and kids," Boyd said.  

All around Minnesota, families and friends are welcoming home more than 1,200 members of the Minnesota National Guard's 34th "Red Bull" Infantry Division, who oversaw military command of the southern part of Iraq. 

This latest tour was Boyd's second Iraq deployment.  More than one in four of the Red Bulls have been deployed to combat repeatedly.  Nearly two dozen soldiers have been through four tours of duty.

There are just over 14,000 soldiers and airmen in Minnesota's National Guard.  Unlike Boyd, who's African American, 92 percent of  Minnesota Guard members are white. Most are men -- 85 percent, and their average age is 28.

Since the September 11th terror attacks, the  Minnesota National Guard has undergone a transformation from weekend warriors to a combat-tested military force.

WITHOUT WARNING

For a long time Minnesota National Guard service  almost exclusively involved training drills along with natural disaster assistance, and sometimes  foreign peacekeeping and humanitarian missions.

That all changed on Sept. 11, 2001. 

Jacob Villavicencio
Pfc. Jacob Villavicencio embraces his fiancee, Victoria Vasterling, after returning to Stillwater, Minn. Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The National Guard was drawn into the war on terror within hours of the coordinated attacks.  Fighter jets from Duluth were dispatched to guard airspace over Washington D.C.

Guard officials say since 9/11 there have been  more than 19,000 combat deployments from Minnesota, many of them repeat deployments. 

In 2003, the first Minnesota Guard soldiers were sent to Iraq. Dan Henry, who lives near Little Falls, was part of one of those early deployments. 

"Back then we didn't get any notice at all," Henry said. "I came home from work one evening  and got a phone call at four o'clock in the evening, and was required to report to Camp Ripley the next morning."

After several days at Camp Ripley in central Minnesota, and training at a post in Colorado,   Henry was on way to Iraq.  He was 49 years old. 

When Henry's unit got to Iraq in May 2003,  he said  the U.S. military was not nearly as established there as it is now. 

"We didn't have places to sleep," said Henry.  "There was no electricity, no running water, that type of thing. So we had to kind of fend for ourselves."

Henry and the other Minnesota soldiers helped prepare Balad Air Base for the arrival of thousands of U.S. troops.  The base, about 45 miles north of Baghdad, is also known as Camp Anaconda.  

"We poured concrete every day for three and a half months, seven days a week, and in 120, 130 degree temperature weather," said Henry. "It was a challenge."

Dan Henry
Former Minnesota Guard Soldier Dan Henry where he works at Catherdal High School in St. Cloud. Henry was almong the first Mn National Guard troops deployed to Iraq.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Henry says it was difficult to return home six years ago, and fit back into his family life.

"I was a first sergeant in our unit, and about six months after I got back my wife stated to me, she says,  'You're  not the first sergeant in this family.'"

Henry said he is glad all of the Guard troops that deployed with him made it back safely. In the years following, many other units did not return home intact. 

The first deaths for the Minnesota National Guard in Iraq came in February 2005, when three members of a unit based in Montevideo were killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq.  They were David Day, 25,  Jesse Lhotka, 24, and Jason Timmerman, 24. 

So far, war on terror combat has taken the lives of 14 members of the Minnesota National Guard. Another 157 were injured, according to the National Guard Bureau.  

THE COST OF  COLLEGE

  When Cody Messner enlisted in early 2004, he was one of the many people who joined the National Guard to pay for college. 

Cody Messner
Minnesota National Guard Soldier Cody Messner tests a personell heater in a military vehicle at Camp Ripley in central Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

 In 2005, the Winthrop native found himself at a military post in Mississippi, learning how to use a machine gun. He was getting ready to deploy to Iraq.

In an interview before he was deployed, Messner, then 20, acknowledged apprehension about going to Iraq but said he was ready.

"I am looking forward to going there, and more of getting it done with and going through everything.  You don't want to wait around for something, you want to go over there and get it done," Messner said at the time. 

Messner and roughly 2,500 other Minnesota Guard troops were part of the Guard's 1st Brigade Combat Team.  Their deployment was the Minnesota Guard's largest since World War II.  The soldiers ended up staying in Iraq several months longer than they expected because of the troop surge ordered by then-President George W. Bush.    

When the Guard members returned home in the summer of 2007, they had the distinction of spending more time on the ground in Iraq than any other military unit.  

At the time of their return, Cmdr. Rick Erlandson noted the controversy over the war in Iraq, but he told the Guard troops to be proud of their deployment.

"No matter what history says about Operation Iraqi Freedom, no matter what the pundits say and what the history books say, we all know -- and you need to take pride in the fact that you have given the Iraqi people an opportunity for a better life," Erlandson said at the time.  

After Iraq, Messner used Guard money to get training as a diesel mechanic.  He remains a member of the Minnesota Guard, and has a full-time National  Guard job servicing military vehicles at Camp Ripley near Little Falls. 

Adj. Gen. Larry Shelito
Adj. Gen. Larry Shelito commands the Minnesota National Guard. When asked about future deployments Shelito refers to the crystal ball on his desk.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Messner says coming home was a big shock, but just a month and a half after returning from Iraq, Messner was in school.  

He said it was a good idea to start school right away, and that it helped to be around someone else who had been to Iraq. 

"It was a big change going back to college, because you had been out of high school for a couple of years. But I was able to do to school with one other guy I was deployed with," Messner said.  "We were able to relate to each other, and made it a little bit easier. We worked with each other."  

Messner said joining the National Guard was the right decision for him.  He served for six years and re-upped for another year.  He said he's not sure how long he'll stay in the military.  

WELCOME HOME....FOR NOW

  The latest Minnesota National Guard death came in October 2009, from Afghanistan. George Cauley, 24, of Walker, Minn., died from roadside bomb injuries.

The commander of the Minnesota National Guard, Adj. Gen. Larry Shellito, called Afghanistan a very dangerous place and said more Minnesota Guard troops will be deployed there.

During a recent appearance on Minnesota Public Radio's Midday program, Shellito did not offer much concrete information about future deployments to Afghanistan. 

"It will be relatively significant in size. We anticipate they'll be working in the key sectors in Afghanistan," Shelito said. 

There have been few specifics about the role the Minnesota National Guard will play in Afghanistan.  All that has been officially confirmed is that 12 Guard soldiers will head there this spring to train Afghan troops.